All for the Best
|"A small hole not mended, in time will become a big hole much more difficult to mend"|| The run begins on the Day of the Early Crane in the Month of the Phoenix in the Tenth Year of the Bear since the since the Third Treaty of Houses.|
The run takes place in Tahiti and elsewhere in the Arcade.
Xiao Fa and Kasumi dedicate Wei Han's rock back to its existence of service, so Wei Han can start working on the ritual to become not an enemy of the Empire.
The butler brings Lijuan a letter from the Dragon's Throne. It appears that Zhuai is unavoidably detained. Merit notices that he has written in two colors of ink (adjusted here for easier reading).
After reading the letter, Lijuan draws some art.
Well, that doesn't look good. And Zhuai has said that things will be cleared up quickly, so he's probably fine and not in any actual trouble. If it's a trap, then, Min Feng suggests, the best thing to do is to NOT GO INTO THE TRAP. As Lijuan is not fond of visiting the Dragon's Throne either, she agrees.
The party decides that rescuing Zhuai seems like a lot of trouble.
- "Well, if he was struggling or suffering, it would be different." -Xiao Fa
Of course, it's not actually clear if he's struggling or suffering, or about to be so. Well, perhaps that could be determined without actually venturing near the trap. Lijuan suggests that Merit send his strike team to figure that out. Of course, they could find out something that would compel the party to act, and that defeats the purpose of avoiding the plot in the first place, but Lijuan isn't as willing to leave Zhuai to be horribly killed as she is to leave him stuck in the city where he's already been for a while anyway. Merit gives them instructions: if it's safe and easy to get him out, then do so. Otherwise, just find out what the problem is and come back. Lijuan gives them an arrow to give Zhuai to prove that they're really from the party.
Well, is there anything else that could be done rather than rescue Zhuai?
An Alternate Plot
Merit's delivery from the shop, the Scarring Shinai, is slow to arrive. Some investigation of where it might have been mislaid turns up a mention of the best urchins being curious about the package.
AHAH A PLOT! It's Bobby Li!
The group troops up to the Port of Propitious Voyage, where they ask around after Bobby Li. Lijuan is informed that she can be granted an audience at the Court of Bobby Li, which is in the back room of one of the warehouses of the House of Gainful Protection. She is granted an audience first thing the following morning.
Some other information-gathering about the House of Gainful Protection suggests that they're down a few MIL that they loaned to the House of Exuberant Interference, and they're also temporarily down several CHI because they made a lot of bad investments in poor demon plans. However, they now have some sort of plan to be the Best House.
This is deemed a sufficiently dangerous plot that it is worth dealing with instead of rescuing Zhuai, so the group contemplates what might be done to thwart Bobby Li.
Lijuan has a favor from Wolf to de-aspect him away from the Best demon, though it does require kidnapping him. Merit is a little concerned - he'd rather not have a public reputation as a guy who kidnapped a kid and de-aspected him. Well, maybe it can be done surreptitiously. The party does have a ninja.
Oh, and while Merit is thinking of it and the party is looking for things that they could be doing instead of anything else, Merit wants to talk to Dragon about getting out of the deal with Magpie, and the fact that Magpie wants to be friends with Dragon again. Xiao Fa is worried about a conversation with Dragon about Magpie, since Dragon is currently being a little extra-touchy about his hoard, ever since someone stole one of the keys.
Xiao Fa calls an audience with Dragon, and Merit retells the conversation they had.
Dragon listens, frowning.
- "Keep in mind the difference of intention between those who would be your friend when they are in need, and when you are in need. This is not to say that I am unwilling to speak with Magpie - but bear in mind he made these statements when he was being attacked." -Dragon
- "If you limit your allies to only those who are willing to go beyond quid pro quo, there aren't that many of them." -Merit
- "It does not hurt to investigate all paths towards peace, but one must not be taken in by one's desire." -Dragon
Merit asks what Dragon thinks about Horse and Wolf. Dragon thinks Wolf is more strongly bound by loyalty, but Horse is - in part due to the party's efforts - fastened to Dragon's star and knows that. Horse is more of a diplomat, who by nature must converse with both friends and enemies. While Wolf is more stern and strict. The loyalty of wolf is not easily won but is strong.
Merit tries to recruit an urchin, but is unsuccessful. He boggles - that's never happened before.
One of Bobby Li's urchins shows up to escort Lijuan to her audience. Master Zhou is concerned at the optics of Lijuan going to an audience with Bobby Li, but Lijuan shrugs - since she's already asked for one, refusing to go now doesn't necessarily make it better.
Min Feng, Xiao Fa, and Kasumi go with Lijuan. Min Feng and Xiao Fa are disguised, but Kasumi is in full ninja kit. The Gainful Protection guard at the door to the warehouse looks displeased, and says Lijuan can't bring a ninja. Lijuan protests - her friends are so concerned for her, they won't let her go anywhere without them. And Bobby Li promised she could see him. One of the urchins ducks in, and then comes back out to pass a message to the guard.
The guard makes Lijuan sign what is basically a confession: if anything at all goes wrong, it's her fault. They all sign, though Min Feng uses a fake name.
Bobby Li is sitting in a chair on top of a table; there's a side table with a lot of pork buns, and he nods to one of the urchins nearby, who does his best to be a herald.
- "Hear ye hear ye! Um! Bobby Li is now willing to hear the audience of Lady Lijuan!"
- "Okay, we're going to work on that." -Bobby Li
Lijuan does her best to persuade Bobby Li that being the best at things isn't good for him, because he should be more than just the best. Sadly for her, he can use the best grace in the room, which is Min Feng's (with the Crane Talisman), and he's not falling for it.
Bobby Li is also worried about Lijuan. If she's constantly being followed by a ninja, who won't let her go where she wants to go without being stalked like this, maybe she needs some help? Lijuan claims it's all fine, but Bobby Li is also not convinced by this. Well, if she decides she needs help, she should let him know.
Min Feng studies Bobby Li before they go, but the idea of assaulting the House of Gainful Protection to steal their guest is a little dangerous. The contract they signed for the Tanzhe invasion didn't include the same no-thwarting clauses that the contract with the House of Judicious Increase, but even without that, breaking in and kidnapping a guest is likely to be taken amiss.
Well, Lijuan could send him a note saying she does need help getting out of her "friends'" clutches.
- "No! Let's please not use his one redeeming quality against him!"
Merit starts to show signs of a moral epiphany, or a meltdown, or something.
- "We do not have the moral high ground here! We can't just say "Heavens, you should not take some random street orphan and put him in charge of the Empire!"" -Merit
Xiao Fa looks hurt.
- "He's trying to run the Empire, but I don't think he's qualified." -Merit
- "It's going around now." -Kate
- "Et tu?" -Eon
- "Out of character!" -Kate
Asking around the urchins indicates that Bobby Li goes to the best tea house for lunch, but he does have a guy from Gainful Protection with him. The party should be able to take out one bodyguard, though. Of course, mugging someone in the Cup of Five Virtues is also likely to annoy people such as Chasui.
A plan is finally arrived at: Merit, in disguise as a pork bun vendor, starts spreading the rumor that the House of Gainful Protection is trying to get the demon out of Bobby Li so that they can use it for themselves without him.
After an afternoon of rumor-spreading, the group meets back up at the inn where they're staying in the Port. A messenger arrives from Merit's team in the Dragon’s Throne.
- "Made contact with Zhuai, preparing for extraction."
- "They're all going to die." -Master Zhou
That evening, Lijuan stakes out Bobby Li's throne room, until he and his bodyguard come out, and Bobby ditches the bodyguard in a shop. She follows Bobby to the seedy section of town, and after losing him a few times, finally trails him to another warehouse. She sends Ho back for the rest of the group, and Min Feng arrives in time for Bobby to attempt his clever plan - several burly kids leave carrying boxes, and split up to go in different directions. Min Feng identifies which box Bobby is in since she has him studied, and then the party jumps that kid when he’s alone. Merit jams the box closed, and Master Zhou punches the burly kid to the end of the alley. Then they grab the box and run for the woods.
- "I'm sorry, Bobby Li, it's for your own good. It'll be over soon." -Lijuan
- "I'm going to get out of this because I'm the best!" -Bobby Li
He does burst out of the box with the best strength, but does not manage to escape before he is grabbed with the Serpent Talisman unbreakable grab. They tie him up, and Lijuan keeps holding him while everyone else goes to the range of the "safe distance" glasses (which is just off the battlemap so he can't target them with his shticks.)
Ni Cheng and some wolves arrive, and Ni Cheng nods to Lijuan.
- "We will take care of this. You may stay if you wish, but it is not necessary." -Ni Cheng
- "I'm going to get you!" -Bobby Li
- "No. You are not." -Ni Cheng
The wolves start biting Bobby Li, almost spectrally - they seem to be tearing bits of flesh off of him, except it's not really flesh. He screams. Viewing from afar, Xiao Fa is horrified.
- "They're going to keep biting you as long as you're the best thing here to bite." -Ni Cheng
Bobby holds out for a while, but finally gives in, sobbing.
- "I'm not the best. I'm not the best..."
- "I'll have nightmares about this for the rest of my life. Does that make him feel better?" -Lijuan
- "Yeah, it kind of does."
Ni Cheng nods again to Lijuan, declaring Wolf's debt to be paid, and she and the wolves leave, leaving an unconscious Bobby Li behind. Xiao Fa dashes up, and shouts at anyone to make a fire and make willow bark tea.
Xiao Fa insists on bringing Bobby to a healing house, rather than dumping him in an inn, so he and Lijuan and Min Feng head to the Port of Auspicious Voyage where a house of the Meihua Sannong is, while everyone else goes back to Tahiti in case there is word from the strike team.
Luckily for Xiao Fa, none of the monks are people he knows, so he can skip all of the internal order politics. Xiao Fa explains that the boy was aspected with demon nature, and it has been removed from him, but not gently, by spirit wolves. The monks think that that doesn't sound good, and meditate over him. One of them flees, face pale. They think they may need to write to the House elders, but Xiao Fa says they don't need to do that - he'll let them know.
Bobby Li wakes up the next day, and Lijuan is allowed to see him.
- "Hello, Bobby Li!" -Lijuan
- "Oh, the monks didn't know my name. Are you a friend of mine?"
Xiao Fa drags Lijuan back out of the room before she can answer.
- "This could go one of two ways. One of them ends up with him being Batman." -Tom
Lijuan attempts to befriend Bobby Li, and invites him to come and live in her house (well, really, it will be her stables, as she thinks that is the best place to raise urchins) in the Forest of Chin? He supposes so. Min Feng explains to Bobby that Lijuan is the heir to a noble house, and that Min Feng suspects Lijuan sees some similarities in her situation. They suggest maybe he choose a new name, but he isn't sure about that.
- "If I change my name, my mom won't be able to find me." -Bobby
- "I ... don't think your mom is still alive."
- "Well... just in case."
The rest of the party persuades Lijuan that it would be a bad idea to let Bobby see any of his old friends - that would just tell him what he had lost. It's probably better to not let him know, or let him go looking for it. Lijuan sends him off to her house, as she would rather he imprint on House Foon than the House of Exuberant Interference.
Then, everyone returns to Tahiti.
One of Merit's team returns, and says that the extraction was successful. Zhuai made the arrangements with the help of a noblewoman of the Throne, and they should be coming up the road any minute.
- " I met her, but I'm not authorized to remember her name."
Not long after that, a palanquin is carried up to the front of the House. The carriers are wearing the colors of the Dragon's Throne, and the palanquin itself exudes an aura of "the person in here is too important to be disturbed." They set it down, and bow three times. Merit starts to offer them refreshment, but the leader of his strike team starts making shoo-ing motions to get rid of them. He gives them a generous tip and they head back towards the Dragon's Throne.
Then, nothing happens. The palanquin stays closed (and too important to disturb). The party carries it into the hedge-enclosed Garden of Combats, and nothing happens. Kasumi finally (with a will roll) sneaks in very carefully so as to not disturb the occupants. Zhuai is within and is dressed in a fancy gown that is clearly Autumn Rose's, and appears to be asleep. She sneaks back out, and gives Lijuan a feather to wake him with.
- "Aww. Does he look tired?" -Lijuan
- "...More like barely alive."
Xiao Fa checks on Zhuai, and is immediately alarmed. He has Kasumi help remove Zhuai from the palanquin, at which point it stops being Too Important to Disturb.
The butler announces that Lady Kai has arrived, so Merit and Master Zhou go to see her.
- "Greetings, Lord Li. I see you've taken my advice to heart. If you blaze a different trail than the one Butterfly has set, then I can be here more often."
Kai is currently a harbinger of the choices that Merit has made for himself, and as such, she can explain what they are.
- "You can consign your friends to invade the heart of Spider's domain to rescue Zhuai's spirit, or you can wait for him to rescue himself by becoming one of the Marked."
- "What do you know of the path to rescue him?" -Zhou
- "It certainly would have been more plausible had you done it before he was captured. But perhaps it was ordained. You will have to leave the trappings of your body behind and confront Spider more directly. That was why Butterfly arranged for Master Zhou to be here today."
Merit’s strike team is aghast. Zhuai helped them put together the extraction plan, and he thought it would work! He traded some of the esoterica he had been "shopping" for, in order to get help from Autumn Rose, and he was pretty sure that if he could get physically out, it would be good, because the bureaucracy was all aimed at his cover and not him.
Merit recalls that seal that Fen-Xi and the other bureaucrats were using, so something probably caused the bureaucracy to bind Zhuai's soul and not just his cover, but since Zhuai isn't an oogly booger, he didn't realize it.
The group thinks about Spider's Realm. Well, they were there once before, but Spider may be more paranoid now. Spider's realm is, in general, easy to become stuck in, but Spider likes to collect his prisoners to get all he can from them before finally consuming them. That's why it's possible to rescue them at all. The Marked can come and go as they like, of course.
Min Feng quashes the rumor about the House of Gainful Protection and Bobby Li, before everyone heads to the Precincts to research Spider's Realm in the Exalted Library. Merit gets 31 successes, which will be useful for the next run.
One thing that will be important is that there will need to be a questor for finding Zhuai. Xiao Fa was the questor to find Dragon, and Lijuan would be appropriate, but isn't in the run. They'll have to think about that.
Master Zhou becomes a patron of the library, but since the Tortoise Talisman is no longer the Librarian's seal, his first research isn't quite as blessed.
Merit trades Speedy a Monkey and Butterfly scroll, in exchange for a one-shot escape assistance from one trap in Spider's realm.
Master Zhou buys some bracers of punching from a shop in Bear Mountain, but refuses to let them put "official supplier to the White Pagoda" over the door for a deep discount.
Lijuan finds in Zhuai's pocket a list of the resources he acquired during his "shopping":
- A favor from the Regent of the Steppes
- Three Jade Passes that can have the name filled in
- An emergency code that can close all the gates for about half an hour (once)
- A party to be thrown by the Golden Duke
- A strike to be thrown by the trash collectors
- A private tour of the collection of Lord Mar.
- A date with the daughter of the Regent of the Taiga
- A dagger covered with the blood of the Regent of the Heights.
- He now owes a favor to Autumn Rose